HOW TO FIND THE BEST FOOD IN JAPAN
Japannnnn. What a country. What a trip. Not the actual vacation, but mental aspect of it. After living in China for five years, it's just so wild to see the different customs of each Asian country. Being that Japan is the only "developed" Asian country I've been to, I was kind of taken back, finding myself almost more infatuated with the people than the food.
I’m wondering what took me so long to make my way there, considering a round-trip flight from Beijing is just a few hours away and less than $500, but I’m psyched that I went when I did, especially since the Yen took a little dip while I was there, making my trip slightly cheaper than most traveler’s.
My journey lasted around three weeks, and followed suit with how many of my holidays go: I ate a lot, shopped a little, and drank enough. I’m trying to find a way to organize all the content thrown in my face over a 20-day period. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few things that really stuck out to me and will hopefully be valuable to you:
- How I travelled for three weeks without gaining weight (srsly wtf)
- All the food I ate and how to find the best restaurants
- Best boutiques in Harajuku
- Getting to Nara (little deer babez)
- A craft beer guide to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto
- Something Mt. Fuji related
- 3-Week Itinerary: Expectation Vs. Reality
- Why first time solo female travelers should start in Japan
If you give no f*cks about Japan, you may want to find another blog to read, because I think this blog is turning Japanese for the next several weeks, starting with all of the food I ate. Kick it.
HOW TO FIND THE BEST FOOD IN JAPAN & EVERYTHING I ATE
In western countries, there’s Yelp!. In China, there’s Dianping. In Japan, there’s Tabélog, but for me, there’s hoofin' it.
When we touched down in Kyoto, I was starving and mentally exhausted from navigating the Japanese Railway for the first time.
Being that I didn’t want to settle on just any meal, I immediately opened Yelp! only to find that the closest option to me was a ramen joint with just a one-star rating, based on the review of a single customer. In my mind, I said, “Eff that customer...and eff Yelp”, and decided to navigate us there anyway, as it was only a four minute walk from my Airbnb.
Approaching our first red lantern lit establishment, I was already pumped. We were greeted with a loud, “Zai ma shi ta!”, and a fully packed house of locals. Glasses were clinking, ramen was being slurped, and sake was being poured.
We took a seat at the bar and had a picture menu placed in front of us. We ordered gyoza (fried dumplings) and two bowls of ramen in pork bone broth. I looked at patrons around me in hopes that I hadn’t ordered the tourist special. To my relief, customers had not only ramen and gyoza in front of them, but even a large bowl of fried rice. After three weeks, I learned this is an entirely common meal arrangement for a quick and comforting lunch or dinner. Carbs to the left, carbs to the right.
As far as me being starry-eyed from landing in a new country, it's possible, but I still believe my first bowl of ramen was the best of the many I had. I was super giddy the whole time we sat in this place, eye-balling everyone's shit so hard that the chef brought me out samples of what he caught me looking at. If I could remember the area and name of this joint, I'd preach it for all to visit, but it's my story and my experience. As you for, you've got to take a chance and make your own.
Take a hit, baby. BE somebody.
I’m not going to ramble on like this for all the following meals I had, this is mostly just a pictorial, but it’s so important to keep this in mind. No matter how many bloggers name drop “the best places to eat in ______”, it doesn’t really matter. Don’t follow the reviews, just stay on foot until you find a place that’s fully packed. Even if you’re super hungry, wait if you have to. It’s usually worth it.
One of the most important things I learned when searching for awesome food in both Kyoto and Osaka was that there are these weird malls and markets that look old and sketchy, but they have amazing restaurants tucked away in them. This one in Kyoto appeared eerily empty, but landed us in a packed sashimi house.
While Kyoto is not known for its cuisine like Osaka is, the boyfriend and I agreed that this was the most special meals we had during our time in Kyoto. After a 1/2 day trip to Arashiyama, we had to switch Airbnb's due to scheduling issues. Our second Airbnb in Kyoto brought us to yet another old looking alley way that was mostly a market for hand-made goods, but had a few restaurants tucked into it. The one we chose was an obanzai specialty restaurant.
Obanzai is a method of food prep that's native to Kyoto, and it's all about the basics. For a meal to be considered obanzai, at least half of its ingredients must be grown or produced in Kyoto and must be in season. While it is about simplicity and reducing waste, the concept is slightly complex:
"Traditionally, obanzai is made taking into consideration five core spiritual elements
- honma mon (genuine things) - using seasonings and cooking implements that have value
- ambai (balance)- unique balance born out of flexibility and creativity in utilizing ingredients
- deaimon (encounter)- cherishing encounters that are made through acquisition and use of ingredients. This word means the act or spirit of living with the nature or community.
- omotenashi (hospitality)- willingness to make an efforts to make the best selection matching the mood or condition of others, to cogitate to enjoy the meal, to cook with the wish that who eat the meal stay healthy. These three acts means motenashi.
- shimatsu (not creating waste)- similar to mottainai, it means putting everything available to good use"
What. A. Spread.
Our main was fried mackerel, the most rich and creamy miso soup, crumbled tofu with greens, straw mushrooms with more tofu, scallops and greens, tempura, and rice. Everything cost us about $25. After we finished eating, the owner brought us an apple (my only piece of fruit during my whole trip) and some matcha. Because this was such a special experience, this is one of two places I'll location drop for this blog: Nishimura. An absolute must if visiting Kyoto.
Osaka and me were as thick as thieves. Referred to as "Japan's Kitchen", Osakans are known not for spending money on designer goods and the newest techonolgy, but for splurging on food.
As I mentioned about Kyoto, we learned quick that exploring markets that look like the photo below were a jackpot for great food. When I say "look like", I mean the arched ceiling with fluorescent lights. This one in Osaka was awesome and in the Tenjimbashi area:
The Japanese don't really walk around eating food or have the same street food culture as China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Thailand. There are a couple of instances like Takoyaki or ice cream.
These are from a great yakitori place in the mall. First row, left to right: bacon-wrapped scallops, raw wasabi chicken (yes, raw chicken), bacon-wrapped quail eggs, pork belly, and beef-wrapped yucca. Row two: bacon-wrapped qual eggs, photo bomb, and classic chicken yakitori. Row three: barbecue master, cheese tofu with honey and herbs, and wasabi chicken.
Aside from being on foot to find the best food in Japan, the easiest way is to hang with a local. Lucky for us, a friend from Arizona has been living in Osaka for about the same duration as I've lived in China. She snagged herself up a Japanese husband, and led us to the good stuff.
She took us to three places. The first was Garage 39, a Japanese craft taproom, followed by The Far Yeast, another taproom (I'll touch on both of these places in another post). After lots of drinking and no solid dinner, we were getting sloppy and needed something to quickly hold us over. Which led us to a bowl of the taproom owner's family recipe for beef stew.
I have no idea what that blotchy jelly-like stuff is. It was in the miso I had at the obanzai place and I saw a whole block of it at a grocery store. I imagine it's some kind of starch of a root. Definitely not animal-based. Either way, it was damn good.
Okay, the second and last place I strongly advise you visit, so much that we ended up going again after our friend took us, is Toriko Zoku.
I've had my share of fried chicken from many different cultures, but Japanese fried chicken is where it's at.
From left to right: jalepeños stuffed with ground chicken and wasabi mustard, chicken meatballs topped with cheese, fried chicken, and yakitori. Not pictured is raw cabbage topped with vinegar. The most simple and delicious appetizer that you get free refills on. The first time we went was for drunk food at around 11pm where we had no wait. The second time we went sober around 8pm and had to wait about 1/2 an hour to get sat.
Pro Tip 1: make reservations at least 24 hours in advance for any place you really want to eat at.
Pro Tip 2: If you go into any place, whether it be a bar or restaurant, some will bring you out a small starter. This isn't free, and it's usually charged per person.
That mall above led us to an Okonomiyaki place. Okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake native to Osaka. Ours was filled with squid ink, cabbage, egg, and seafood. The people neighboring us had bacon, cheese, and eggs. Never having been a pancake person myself, I was left unimpressed. Don't fret, I also hate China's take on the pancake, and am left only to enjoy the potato variation that resonates more with my blood line.
Where my half Jews at?
One of our final meals in Osaka came from a humble little joint near our Airbnb. One of my favorite parts about lunch sets in Japan is that they're signifcantly cheaper than dinner options, without losing any quality of food or service. Not only that, but just when you think the server is done bringing your food, dish after dish keeps arriving.
My kind of evolution. All for nine MF dollaz.
Pork dimsum, mapo dofu, tofu with greens, raw tuna salad, rice, carrot puree soup, and tea.
Touching down in Tokyo, one would think I'd be ready for some Michelin starred restaurants, really great sushi, or the infamous Santa Monica crepes in Harajuku.
Wrong. All I wanted was western food after eating Japanese for two weeks, not to mention the super awesome Christmas Day food poisoning I had in Mt. Fuji!!11!!!1
Tokyo is great, really. But like Beijing, you risk the tourist traps if you stick to areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Don't get me wrong, the food is likely going to be great, and the Japanese are masters of their crafts, but I wanted something that would blow my mind, and part of me wanted to wait in line for something really special, like most people were doing for crepes:
So I did it. I waited in line for one of those famous lobster rolls from Luke's of New York, only to find out there's a line-less location in Osaka. Blah. Honestly, it was kind of exciting.
I savored that lil sammich.
Still bingeing on food I don't often eat in Beijing, we delved into some deep dish from Devil's Craft:
It wasn't enough. My week-long stay in Tokyo included the likes of hot dogs, Mexican food, outlandishly long fries, more pizza, and a special appearance from my good friend named $2.50 margaritas.
Back to Japanese food.
A quick yakitori dinner of fried tofu, oyster croquettes, chicken meatballs, and stout boiled edamame.
2016 came quickly to an end, as did my trip. Most places were either fully booked, or closing shop for the New Year. I started craving Japanese food again and hadn't really taken the time to have a massive sushi or sashimi dinner yet.
This little place was one of the few open near our final hotel in the Sangenjaya area. It was just what the doctor ordered. No frills. Just fish.
DAY TRIPS AND FUJI EATS
On our day trip to Arashiyama we mistakenly ate before boarding the train. The town itself had good looking restaurants. I ate some matcha mochi and takoyaki pictured above.
Indian food with the world's biggest naan in the Mt. Fuji area because NOTHING was open after 8pm when we arrived. Also, a massive burger in Fuji, because I'm human.
The Japanese are masters of pleasing the palate. Even 7/11 and Lawson's had it going on with their endless onigiri selection. My favorite being the bacon wrapped one with soy sauce rice.
If you're going to Japan, it's clear you're going to be well fed. If you don't have a guide or can't stand walking, which you'll ultimately regret, definitely use Tabélog to see which places the Japanese prefer.
So, which of these looked best to you? What's your favorite thing to eat in Japan? How'd you find it? Share your thoughts in comments below!